Press Conference with Prime Minister Ehud Barak on the UN Millennium Summit and
Middle East Peace Process

New York, Thursday, September 7, 2000

PM BARAK: We are here in an unprecedented gathering of world leaders, and I think that first of all we have to commend the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, for his vision and determination that led to this highly important gathering. We in Israel see this gathering as an opportunity to expand and deepen our relationship with our world leaders and with different countries all around the globe. We do feel a major turnaround in the situation of Israel in these kind of international forums, like the U.N., where we are now much better deployed to share our views, to share ideas about how to approach the Middle East conflict, and to expand our bilateral relationship with different countries in the world.

We have made this opportunity intended to explain to leaders all around the world, both the opportunity that is there to push forward with the peace process in the Middle East, the risks that might be derived from a deadlock, if we reach one, and the time limit that we have of basically a few weeks within which either we have a breakthrough or we might face the reality of a deadlock. We emphasized our commitment to leave no stone unturned on the way to try and to make peace in the Middle East, if it is possible, and our readiness to take calculated risks in order to achieve it without violating the core of our national interests. We hope to find a partner.

Until now, we didn’t find a responsive partner on the other side, but the door is open and we hope that we’ll find it in the very near future.

I should admit that leaders all around the world are accepting our position in a very open way, and somehow may say we feel that there is a fair attitude and approach on behalf of most of the leaders of the world in regard to a peace process in the Middle East.

I strongly believe that a peace in the Middle East between Israel and its immediate ring of neighbors can serve the wider interests of the free world. It can enable deployment of moderate regimes vis-a-vis the rogue states in the Middle East. It will help to stabilize these moderate regimes, and it will even help to provide a continual flow of oil from the Middle East to the economies of Europe and Japan, which is an essential need of these economies in order to keep the sustainable growth of their economies.

That concludes my opening remarks, and I’m ready to answer questions, if you have.

Q: [What] is Israel looking for from the Palestinians in order for the process to move forward?

PM BARAK: During Camp David and even afterwards, President Clinton raised several far-reaching ideas in order to solve core issues in regard to the peace process, from Jerusalem, through the refugee problem, and down to the borders or settlements issues. I have told President Clinton that some of the ideas that he had raised are beyond what we believe we can accept, but that if Chairman Arafat is ready to take his — Clinton’s — ideas as basis for negotiation, we will be ready to contemplate it and to enter into such a negotiation. Until now, we had not seen Arafat ready to take Clinton’s ideas as a basis for negotiation. This I interpret as lack of flexibility.

Q: Do you believe that a main reason why Mr. Arafat may not be conducive to those ideas, some — (off mike) — Middle East describe the relation of Israel to the United States — (off mike) — and that support is sort of overbearing or inordinate. And do you have any comments on that, regarding that aspect? Do you think that they see the requirements that Clinton has put forth as too top-heavy in support of Israel as opposed to a balance — (off mike)?

PM BARAK: I don’t think that this is the kind of thing that President Clinton proved all along his presidency a kind of evenhandedness, and he enjoyed the trust of the Arab world as a whole and of Chairman Arafat in a way that is unprecedented in the history of this conflict. He is also a good friend of Israel, but I had never observed him swaying from this line of being a kind of honest broker of ideas and solutions.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, can you separate the — (off mike) — on the idea of sovereignty and what is meant by holy sovereignty and alternate sovereignty and sovereignty under the — (off mike)?

PM BARAK: I will detail some of these ideas in front of the cameras, but may I say that there is a need for fairness and for symmetry. Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are the cornerstones of Jewish identity, and I made it very clear that no Israeli prime minister will ever be able to sign on a document that gives up the sovereignty of places like the Temple Mount to the Palestinians. And may I say that somehow, with all due respect, when it comes to a moment when Arafat is on the verge of establishing his own state, it is not the right time to rewrite the history of the great three monotheistic religions.

I believe that the very word "Temple Mount" in every Western language carries the real story of this place. And when we think of Jesus Christ walking in the streets of Jerusalem when he was a young man, he could never see there either a mosque, not even a Christian church. What he would have seen was the Temple, the second Temple of the Jews.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, what are the next steps now? If President Clinton cannot solve the problem, where do we go from here?

PM BARAK: We did not lose hope until now that a solution could be found and will be found. But it’s clear that time is running out, that somehow President Clinton will be available in the next few weeks. At the beginning of October, I believe Congress is adjourned until after the elections. And since there is a clear need to mobilize major sums of money in order to support such an agreement being glued together, I believe that time is running out in terms of being able to solve it.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, after all these many months of negotiations, are you frustrated by being at a point where you say that "we don’t have a responsive partner"?

PM BARAK: We were much happier if we already had a solution, but we are realistic. The Middle East — unlike North America or Western Europe — is a tough neighborhood. The conflict is very deep; it goes to the roots of very identities of both peoples, and I don’t expect it to be an easy conflict to be solved. But we are still hopeful that in response to our readiness to take calculated risks, without violating our core national interests, the other side will be ready to show the same level of flexibility and openness, so that an agreement will be achievable.

Q: Secretary-General Annan said the other day that, you can call me a dreamer, but without having a dream, you don’t get anything done. Do you have still — do you still have a dream?

PM BARAK: Of course. We have our dreams. We’ve prayed three times a day along the last 2,000 years facing Jerusalem. We have been dreaming of an Israeli state. We invested a lot of sweat and tears and blood and toil in establishing the Zionist state after four generations of Zionism. And we are happy with what we have. But we are realistic enough to know that no one can have 100 percent of his dream materialize in the case of a political solution for such complicated conflicts, and we expect the other side to understand the same.

Q: In Mr. Arafat’s speech yesterday, did you detect any signs of moderation — specifically that he did not insist on sovereignty over the holy places? And will you be seeing Mr. Arafat, either in a two-person meeting or with President Clinton, this week, or when?

PM BARAK: I am in no position to kind of pass any criticism on the speeches of Chairman Arafat. I believe that his speech somehow is positive or much more positive than it could be otherwise. We, of course, Israelis, we would expect to hear much more positive statements from the other side. But I believe that all of us should be realistic enough to know that if speeches could solve real issues by themselves, we were already in paradise, all of us. The real problems should be tackled by leaders, by human beings. You have asked about the holy Providence. You know, with all the support of holy Providence, it’s the role and the task of leaders, human beings here on the ground, to solve the problems and the plight of other human beings and to deal in very responsible and serious ways with the future of our region.

Q: Chairman Arafat was referring to holy sites yesterday in his speech, and he asked for access to them, he did not insist on full Palestinian sovereignty over them. Did you see any advance in that specific thing? And will you be seeing Mr. Arafat in the next two days?

PM BARAK: I’m not sure whether it would serve the chances of solving the problem if I go into the details, but let me tell you that the Western Wall, which is outside the Temple Mount, is not a disputed place. It is the holiest place for us, and I don’t see any other way but having it under Israeli sovereignty. The Temple Mount is the only place which is disputed. And I already stated the effect that for us it’s a cornerstone of our identity, and we expect any kind of solution to realize it and take it into account.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, what is the primary deal-breaker in the negotiations? What is the one issue that there’s absolutely no agreement on?

PM BARAK: I believe that the most complicated issue is Jerusalem. Refugees is not an easy one. And as of now, even the borders and settlements and the security arrangements have not been fully solved. But I believe that if there will be a breakthrough on the issue of Jerusalem this way or another, I believe that other issues could be kind of be pushed forward in an effective way.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, given the fact that Jerusalem is such a difficult issue, I’m wondering if you would consider deferring that and reaching some sort of settlement under which the Palestinians would still get statehood but Jerusalem would be kicked down the road to be dealt with later?

PM BARAK: During Camp David the Americans raised the idea that either the whole issue of Jerusalem will be delayed by one or two years, or maybe part of Jerusalem, maybe the Old City or the Temple Mount will be delayed for 15 years. After quite painful hesitation we were ready to say that we are ready to contemplate it if the other side is ready to negotiate it. And it happened that the idea was refused by the Palestinians.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, obviously, there’s a Palestinian meeting this weekend. The United States seems to be not terribly concerned about the results of this meeting. They seem fairly confident that the Palestinians will extend the September 13th deadline. What are your views on this? If the deadline is extended, will that be the action that is needed to actually create the conditions for a new round of talks, for a new summit?

PM BARAK: I believe that if this deadline will be delayed, it will be a positive signal of seriousness and readiness to leave the door open for further negotiations. But as I’ve mentioned earlier, time is somehow running out, and I don’t believe that either President Clinton nor the Israeli government will be able to negotiate under the same terms two months from now, for example.

Q: Are you looking to the Arab states and to Egypt to try to assist in trying to cement this deal? And you have always said 50-50. What is it now?

PM BARAK: Fifty-fifty. That’s the only thing that a reasonable person can say about a situation where there are two possible results, and you cannot predict exactly what will happen. But let me tell you that we would not expect the Arab leaders to throw themselves on the fences and break the ice for the Palestinians. But I would say that I would expect them to provide him with a safety net, namely, that if he decides to move, they will tell him, "We are going to back you, as a collective family of Arab nations." And I believe that it’s clear to all of us, including to us in Israel, that any reasonable solution should be one that recognizes the needs and the interests of both sides, not just of Israel, but of the Palestinian side as well.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, if Arafat declares statehood, will you recognize a state without borders?

PM BARAK: I already said more than once that a unilateral declaration of independence is a clear violation of all the agreements that we have signed in the last decade, and I don’t think that it is an acceptable step. And it’s clear to me that if Arafat takes such unilateral steps, we will have to contemplate unilateral steps of our own. And I think that the dynamic of deterioration will be put to action against the interest of both sides.

(Remainder of press conference takes place in Hebrew.)    
 Press Conference with PM Barak on the UN Millennium Summit and Middle East Peace Process-7-Sep-2000
 Press Conference with PM Barak on the UN Millennium Summit and Middle East Peace Process-7-Sep-2000
The Temples of Jerusalem in Islam